By Ron Jones

The water crisis in my hometown of Flint, MI is a classic example of what can and often does go wrong when communities privatize their public services.  In case you missed the news coverage, the  water supply in this Michigan city of over 100,000 people has been rendered unfit to drink or even use for cooking and bathing because of the presence of massive amounts of lead and several toxic chemicals.  How and why did this happen?

With Flint on the verge of bankruptcy, Governor Rick Snyder effectively privatized the entire municipal government of Flint by using his executive powers to appoint a technocrat to run the City’s affairs in 2011.  That official, Darnell Early, reported directly to Snyder and was the one who, with the governor’s support, switched municipal water sourcing from clean Great Lakes to the long polluted Flint River.  Almost immediately the citizens of Flint complained of the strong odor and discolor of the water but were dismissed as troublemakers when they complained to City Council and anyone else who would listen.  The result: thousands of children have been poisoned for life by lead ingestion and other toxic contaminants are suspected of causing an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease among seniors.

Over time Early and other appointed officials along with a complicit City Council did not heed the warnings of experts who tested the water and found it to be as bad as a toxic dump.  No one, it seems, would admit the mistake and take responsibility for this disastrous decision until the national media focused an attention laser on the problem.  Instead of being held accountable, Early, whose decision led to the poisoning, was summarily rewarded by Snyder with an appointment to bypass yet another elected body and run Detroit’s City Schools which were struggling financially.  WTF!  Result: teachers soon opted to stay home rather than work in moldy, rat infested Detroit school buildings caused in part by Early’s refusal to spend adequate money on clean up.

When elected in 2010 Snyder brought with him the very mistaken philosophy that a governmental entity can (and should) be run like a business.   His agenda coming into office included the central notion that services would be consolidated or privatized.  And the overall thrust of his program positioned Michigan cities (there were four more that he targeted) as businesses providing competitive products to their “citizen consumers.”

That same philosophy is at work in Broome County where County Legislators have said as much.  That philosophy very often leads to disaster and, it certainly did in Flint.   Early (and Snyder) made the decision to change the water source in order to “save” $12 million per year.  Apparently neither of them asked the question of whether or not the decision was best for the people of the city.   They treated them only as consumers of a product. And they then delivered a “bad product.”

In Broome County the switch from using county employees to cook and deliver meals for hundreds of needy residents to a private corporate giant provider (Aramark) is a prime example.  All but one brave Legislator voted for the privatization at the final hearing on the subject.  At some point on down the line, given Aramark’s poor reputation, the food served is likely to “go sour.”  Let’s hope no one in our community suffers catastrophic consequences from that event similar to what has happened in Flint.

After that last open meeting one Legislator called me a fear monger for sounding the alarm bell on Aramark. I look at my offering as more of a fact monger. Predicting what is likely to happen based upon what has already happened elsewhere seems to me to be a sensible course. I wish more local officials would make decisions using that formula and not an ideological one of “government is bad and privatization is good.”























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